The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘New Atheist’

9/11 and “How the World Changed”: My Thoughts Ten Years Later

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 11, 2011

Here I sit on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and I find myself reflecting on the last ten years since that day.  I wanted to write down some of my thoughts in this blog post, because when it comes to the issue of 9/11 specifically and the broader issue of terrorism in general, I think there is much need for skepticism and critical thinking.  This is most especially true because of the high level of emotion and passion the whole issue of 9/11 invokes, and when our emotions are stirred so strongly we must make sure to temper our passion with reason.  So, here goes…

After ten years, what has become glaringly apparent to me is that the events of 9/11 changed things, but in my opinion it was not really in the way that many people think.  First, I have to say that every time I hear someone say or read that “On Sept. 11th the world changed” or something similar, I just have to shake my head because I think this kind of statement shows an interesting bias.  I say this because, fundamentally, nothing about the world around us really changed on that day – both before and after 9/11, the Earth turns on its axis, the sun rises and sets, and the universe trundles merrily along.  What did change on that day is the perspective which many people, mostly those of us within the United States, view the world around us.  It is unfortunate, I think, that many of us conflate these two things in our minds: we equate how they view the world with how the world actually works.  And this is, I think, the cause of much irrationality and muddled thinking.

Many of us were shaken to our core at the horrors we witnessed as not one, but two, planes slammed into the World Trade Center buildings, and as we heard the news of the attack on the Pentagon.  The sight of the Twin Towers collapsing further sent a shudder down our collective spines, and we lamented the seemingly senseless loss of life in such magnitude.  In some ways, we were brutally and startlingly shaken out of our complacency, which for some consisted of a belief that we in the United States were somehow – magically – immune to such devastation.  And when evidence to the contrary was presented to us, in a most horrific fashion, the reaction of many was precisely what one would expect: fear and anger.

There have been a lot of things written about 9/11 and its aftermath, but one thing I want to note is the manner in which many different people have reacted to the fear and anger brought to the surface due to 9/11: by seeking out some kind of evil “Other” to use as a boogeyman.  Now, don’t misinterpret me here – it is obvious that the attacks of 9/11 were planned and carried out by Al Qaeda, and the concern about groups such as Al Qaeda and the terrorism they perpetuate is a legitimate subject of concern that should be addressed.  What I am talking about goes beyond pointing out the very real threat posed by groups such as Al Qaeda; I am instead speaking of a broader pattern which has become apparent to me over the years.

For example, there are some people who have chosen the “Other” to be all Muslims, equating them with terrorists.  They point to the religion of Islam and its followers and make erroneous statements that we are now in some kind of cultural (or, more disturbingly, “holy”) war between the Western world and the Islamic world.

There are also those who choose the nefarious “Other” to be atheists and godless liberals.  These people tend towards the view espoused by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson that the Sept. 11th attacks were somehow a punishment from God against the United States for our nation tolerating atheism and homosexuality in our population.  Many people who cater to this view of the “Other” also seem to view all Muslims as the enemy, as stated above.

Then some people take a look at 9/11 and see the “Other” as the United States government or some portion of it.  These tend to be the people who buy into various 9/11 conspiracy theories, and they are in complete denial about the mountain of facts and evidence that show the September 11th attacks were the result of terrorism at the hands of Al Qaeda.  Many of these people also have a talent for blatantly denying physics in an attempt to justify their worldview, and some even try to work in versions of anti-Semitism by implying that 9/11 was some kind of Jewish plot (thus making Jews the “Other” as well).

Last, but not least, there are those – many of whom are in the skeptical movement – who blame all religion as the evil “Other”.  This includes many of the so-called New Atheist writers (many of whose writings I have read and, in many ways, admire) who seem to think there is something inherently dangerous about any kind of religious belief.  I think it is worth noting that many who call themselves skeptics should be a bit skeptical of making such a sweeping generalization without a more rigorous analysis of the available data.  For reference on this particular point, I suggest the reader listen to a recent, excellent interview of Scott Atran on the Point of Inquiry podcast.

There are numerous variations on this theme of paranoia, fear, and the desire to find an “Other” to blame for the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent repercussions throughout society since that day, but one thing that unites them all is an irrational desire to categorize the situation into a simplistic, black and white, us versus them kind of worldview.  This is perfectly understandable once you know that humans are basically tribalistic in the manner in which they form societies and groups within those societies.  We are, in many ways, hard wired to engage in this kind of simplistic tribal thinking, and we carry it out in our everyday lives all the time.

Our tribal tendencies manifest themselves in myriad ways: in what religion/God/gods we worship, in what political beliefs/parties we adhere to, in our choice of sports team that we support, and even among those of us who call ourselves skeptics.  Sometimes these tribal tendencies are relatively harmless, but in other situations they can be downright dangerous.

Of course, the problem is that in reality the world isn’t always so simplistic.  And this goes back to my original point about our perspective of the world is not the same thing as how the world actually works, which forms the core of this particular blog post.  Most especially when we are frightened and our passions are inflamed by events such as Sept. 11th, it is critical that we not make the fundamental mistake of buying into this mode of thinking because it is the very root of how so much thinking can go terribly wrong.

In closing, allow me to finish with this thought: September 11th, 2001 was an awful enough day as it was… we shouldn’t add insult to injury by allowing our darker natures to overwhelm our ability to reason.

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Thoughts on Skepticon 3.0 and the “Skepticism Equals Atheism?” Discussion

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 23, 2010

Okay, for days now I’ve been trying to avoid getting sucked into the insanity that seems to have become the whole “skepticism equals (or doesn’t) atheism” can of worms which got opened (or re-opened) recently as a result of Skepticon 3.0 this past weekend.  I’ve already spoken my mind on this particular topic before, but for the sake of having my voice & point-of-view heard I want to just make a few quick points which I may have neglected in my earlier post…

First, I admit that I wasn’t at Skepticon 3.0, so I am going on secondhand reports when forming these opinions – so please bear that in mind.  Second, in the spirit of being fair to all of those involved, here are some views being expressed by those with a favorable or unfavorable (or perhaps ambivalent) view of how Skepticon 3.0 went down:

Jeff Wagg provides his criticism of the branding of Skepticon 3.0: Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3

JT Eberhard, organizer of Skepticon 3.0, responds to Jeff Wagg: A response to Jeff Wagg

PZ Myers jumps into the fray: I had no idea I was stepping into a controversy

Here’s an active thread on the JREF Forums about the issue.

And there are other active blogs whose authors are sharing their views on the matter, such as Blag Hag and PodBlack Cat. I’m more than certain that with the highly viral & mutagenic nature of modern Internet discussions, there are plenty of other blogs out there going on about the same thing, but I fear that if I have to read anymore on this particular topic then I’ll end up stabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon.  So, rather than read more I will share my own thoughts…

1. Skepticism does not equal atheism: I think it makes no sense to make this assertion, for the simple reason that there are people who are both religious and excellent skeptics on many scientific subjects (for example, astronomer Pamela Gay) as well as atheists who are absolutely lousy skeptics on some very important subjects (for example, comedian Bill Maher).  Are a great many skeptics also atheists?  Yes, but it is not a requirement – allow me to explain further in #2…

2. We are not all equally skeptical of every topic – we all compartmentalize: Or, as I think magician & skeptic Penn Jillette so eloquently put it – “Everybody got a gris-gris”.  There are some topics about which we are more skeptical (or, perhaps, better at applying our critical thinking skills) than other topics.  This is basic human nature, folks; it is known in more academic circles as a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.  That is why we need a community of skepticism, to spread out all of that dissonance so that it doesn’t concentrate too much in any one area and thus blind all of us.  We all come to the table with our own biases & preconceptions – for some it is political, others religious, others some form of pseudoscience.  The sooner we acknowledge this basic fact of ourselves & our fellow skeptics, that fundamentally we are really no different from “believers”, the better.

3. Of course religion should be open to free inquiry – duh: I’ve said it before and will say it again… religion should not be “off limits” from critical analysis and skeptical thought.  Every topic should be on the table, including potential logical fallacies involved in some forms of atheist argumentation.  And no, I’m not conflating atheism with religious belief, I am simply stating that a bad argument is a bad argument, regardless of the source.

4. Disagreement & debate is healthy, but trash-talking isn’t: With the growth of the skeptical movement over the last couple of decades, we are seeing a natural consequence of that growth – the fact that we’ve grown so large that we are seeing healthy debate & dissent from within the movement itself on some key questions (say, on the question of religion).  Folks, this is a good thing!  I say this is good because it is a sign of the success we’ve had – we are no longer a movement of old, white, bald academic men who sit around in college classrooms rehashing the same ol’ same ol’.  We are spreading out, reaching deeper into society, getting our message out there, and running into the inevitable controversies which will confront any growing social movement.  I’m not sure why anyone is actually surprised that this sort of thing has happened – again, we skeptics are not fundamentally different than anyone else.

In short, we should and we must have these (and other) discussions.  I don’t mind the discussion & debate, but what does bother me is the tone taken by – in my opinion – too many skeptics.  Charges of “you aren’t a real skeptic”, “you’re just being a dick and alienating people”, and similar silly & immature sputterings have come lately from far too many people in the movement whom I have grown to know and respect over the years.  Seriously, folks, we are better than that; or, at least, we should be.  On some things, we simply have to agree to disagree, lest we eat our own.

5. To be broad based, the skeptical community should avoid myopia: Is the question of religion an important one?  Yes, it is.  Is it the only question upon which we should focus?  No, it isn’t.  I acknowledge that for some people addressing the flaws in religion is the most important thing, while for others it isn’t, and while for still others they’d rather not discuss it at all.  Personally, I am a fan of many of the prominent atheistic critics of religion who have written so prominently in the last few years, but my particular skeptical focus is different.  I am personally committed to simply getting as many people as I can to simply think more critically, no matter what the particular subject matter.  And the avenue I have chosen to follow is that of the formal educational system in the United States.

My concern is that the conversation of “skepticism equals atheism?” could potentially be sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, with the risk of snuffing out other aspects & issues within the skeptical movement.  If some people want to focus upon this particular subject, fine by me (remember #3 above) and more power to you; but if it isn’t my particular cup of tea to focus specifically upon this topic, don’t diss me for it.

Lastly, let’s not spend too much time & energy focusing upon the issues that divide us; I would much rather see a more constructive conversation on the things that we can agree upon than some of the nasty bickering I’ve seen of late from my skeptical colleagues.

Okay, there are my thoughts on the matter.  For what it’s worth.

Posted in religion, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront” Religion is a False Dichotomy

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2010

Last weekend the Council for Secular Humanism held their 30th anniversary conference in Los Angeles, and it was attended by many of the greatest minds in the humanist & skeptical movement.  One of the headlining events of the conference was a panel on the topic of religion – titled “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” – and it has subsequently generated a great deal of discussion within the skeptical community.

The panel included such illuminaries as Jennifer Michael Hecht, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Chris Mooney, and Victor Stenger.  Essentially, the entire discussion – which can be can be watched on U-Stream (part 1 and part 2) – revolved around one question:

How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? If we champion science, must we oppose faith? How best to approach flashpoints like evolution education?

There have been a couple of interesting things I’ve read and/or listened to on this question…

PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog – Confrontation all the way

Point of Inquiry’s episode – New Atheism or Accommodation?

… and I’ve either read online discussions about this or had personal conversations about it with other skeptics.  Thus, since it is now a focal point for discussion, I’d like to include my thoughts on this whole issue, because I think that in large part the skeptical/humanist/non-religious communities are missing the forest through the trees…

Read the rest of this entry »

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